Lake Champlain, Vermont

January 1, 2003
Filed under Camping Destinations, Northeast Camping

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The waters mirrored surface reflected the Adirondack range to the west and the Green Mountains to the east as we headed south out of Burlingtons harbor. The bow of the 100-foot-long ship rippled the view while two hundred passengers elbowed the deck rails. All eyes skimmed the aquamarine surface, seeking a rise the way anglers seek a wily trout. But, our search was for a creature from the deep that is far larger and far more illusive. We were looking for a monster.

“Champ” is Lake Champlains legendary serpent. Similar to the Loch Ness Monster, this unique form of marine life is said to have descended from the dinosaurs and has lived in this lake for thousands of years. In fact, French explorer Samuel de Champlain reported seeing a large reptilian creature in the lake in 1609.

In case you think ol Sam was on the schnapps, its also on record that in 1984, 70 passengers aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen caught sight of Champ as its undulating body breached the lakes surface. In 1982, Vermont legislators passed a bill that protects Champ and encourages scientific exploration into its existence. Today the Spirit of Ethan Allen II, which can hold up to 500 passengers, offers daily cruises in search of the famous Vermonster, cousin to Scotlands famous Nessie.


Lake Champlain is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the United States, second only to the Great Lakes. It offers campers rich history and year-round recreation, boasting a host of outdoor opportunities. Its no surprise, then, that Lake Champlain is quickly earning the nickname Americas Sixth Great Lake.

Vermonts first inhabitants were the Abenaki, an Algonquin native American tribe. It wasnt until 1609, however, when Samuel de Champlain joined the Algonquin on a raid of the Iroquois, that the European saw the 120-mile long lake that now bears his name.

The land on the eastern side of Lake Champlain was claimed by the states of New York and New Hampshire during the American Revolution. However, on January 17, 1777, Vermont was declared an independent republic, due largely to the efforts of Colonel Ethan Allen, whose Green Mountain Boys fought valiantly during the revolution. In 1791, Vermont was admitted to the union.

Today, the Lake Champlain region is at peace, of course, and the state of Vermont (from the French verd mont for Green Mountains) controls the once disputed eastern shore. Travelers to the region find a people with reverence for history, a commitment to political freedom, and an intense spirit of ingenuity and hard work. With these traditional New England virtues comes a modern twist: Vermonts high-technology workers are among the most productive in the nation, proving that renowned Vermont craftsmanship is not just found in wood and stone.


We began our exploration on Vermonts Route 7, at the southern tip of the lake where the Champlain Valley is broad and beautiful, banked by the Green Mountains to the east. A short ferry ride to the west deposited us on the New York side of the lake for a visit to Fort Ticonderoga, originally called Carillon. Built by the French in 1775 at the outset of the Seven Years War to block British presence on Lake Champlain, it provides overlook views of the lake and an up-close-and-personal examination of history dating to the American Revolution.

Returning by ferry to the eastern side of the lake, we found ourselves in the midst of a pastoral setting with a number of museums and homesteads worth visiting. Our first stop was the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum at Basin Harbor, an active historical center that also offers courses and workshops on traditional boatbuilding. Lake Champlain lore including numerous shipwrecks is well covered, and historic vessels can be taken out on the water.

Just up the road is the Shelburne Museum, founded in 1947 by Electra Havemeyer Webb and called a celebration of American craftsmanship and ingenuity. There are 200,000 or more pieces of Americana on exhibit in over 35 buildings. Connected by shuttle bus, the exhibits include such treasures as an 1890-era jail, a working print shop with presses ranging in vintage from the 1820s to 1950s, a one-room schoolhouse circa 1840, and galleries of American paintings and prints. A locomotive, side-wheel steamboat, covered bridge, and gardens are just some of the many outdoor attractions.

Nearby is Shelburne Farms, a 1000-acre working farm and education facility landscaped by the famous designer Frederick Law Olmsted. There are guided tours of the property along the shore of the lake that include formal gardens and the enormous turreted barn where Shelburne Farms cheddar cheese is made.

Continuing north, we took a side trip to Mt. Philo State Park where a brief drive led us to the top of a hill from which we could survey the surrounding valley. Easily seen from this vantage are the tall tops of Camels Hump, so named because of its shape, Mt. Ellen, and Vermonts highest peak, Mt. Mansfield. Next we traveled to Burlington, the states largest city and home to a university and several colleges. While there, we toured the Ethan Allen Homestead with its restored 1787 farmhouse.

From Burlington, we wound our way through Vermonts Islands Region (from South Hero to Alberg, just shy of the Canadian border), where views of islands, farms and marinas dot the lightly populated area. Our favorite spots were North and South Hero Islands, and Isle La Motte, where the St. Anne Shrine marks the first French settlement in Vermont in 1666. Outdoor masses are held daily in the summer, and there are picnic grounds and a beach.

As we were leaving, after a weekend of touring and camping around the shore of Lake Champlain, we cast our eyes back upon the lakes surface hoping to see Champ. Americas Sixth Great Lake reflected back the surrounding natural beauty of the region, but no unnatural beast.

Here are a handful of places to stay:

Apple Tree Bay Resort (802/372-5398) has 300 sites, some for RVs, and offers a golf course, marina, fishing, pool and playground.

Burton Island State Park (802/524-6353) has 42 sites on a Lake Champlain island accessible only by ferry. Theres a playground, hiking trails, nature center, fishing area and beach.

Button Bay State Park (802/475-2377) has 73 sites, is lakeside and offers a boat launch, swimming pool, canoeing, fishing, cross-country skiing and hiking trails.

DAR State Park (802/759-2354) has 70 sites and a playground, picnic areas, canoeing and fishing.
Grand Isle State Park (802/372-4300) has 156 sites, is lakeside and offers a beach, picnic areas, recreation facilities, fitness trail, boating, canoeing and fishing.

Lone Pine Campsites (802/878-5447) has 260 sites, is highly rated, and offers entertainment, tennis, store, laundry and recreation halls.
Shelburne Camping Area (802/985-2540) has 77 sites, a restaurant, pools, computer modem lines, and motel rooms are available.

Woods Island State Park (802/524-6353) has five sites by permit only on a remote island in the middle of the lake accessible only by private boat. Theres a trail system, fishing and wildlife viewing. No facilities. Reservations required.


For a weekend that cant be topped, check out:

The Spirit of Ethan Allen II (802/862-8300) is the lakes largest cruise ship and offers dinner and scenic cruises, variety shows, private charters and weddings. The ships indoor and outdoor decks provide the most luxurious way to see the lake from the water.

Green Mountain Railroad (800/707-3530) offers train rides throughout Vermont.

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (802/475-2022; lcmm.org).

The Shelburne Museum (802/985-3346).

Shelburne Farms (802/985-8686).

Ethan Allen Homestead (802/865-4556).

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